British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has revealed plans to lift most of England’s coronavirus restrictions, including face masks and social distancing from 19 July, urging personal responsibility rather than government edict.
Mr Johnson had initially aimed for a full reopening on 21 June, but was forced to push back the date because of a surge in the highly contagious Delta variant.
That variant now accounts for nearly all new COVID-19 cases in Britain, and infection rates have soared, sparking concern.
But mass vaccinations have stopped a resultant surge in hospital admissions or deaths.
“This pandemic is far from over, it certainly won’t be over by the 19th,” Mr Johnson warned on Monday. “We must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from COVID.
“There’s only one reason why we can contemplate going ahead … in circumstances where we’d normally be locking down further, that’s because of the continuing effectiveness of the vaccine rollout.
“We will move away from legal restrictions and allow people to make their own informed decisions,” he said.
Around 86 per cent of British adults have had their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and 63 per cent their second dose.
Right-wing media welcomed the decision to lift restrictions.
The Sun tabloid predicted a “big bang reopening” and The Daily Telegraph wrote Mr Johnson “rips up COVID restrictions”.
But the government’s emphasis on personal judgment was met with concern by scientists, who worry that hospitals and medics could yet be stretched anew if the Delta variant runs amok or new strains emerge.
“Allowing people to make their own choices on this is, effectively, handing control of the safety of such spaces over to the least informed, least caring and indeed the most callous members of society,” said Peter English, former chair of the British Medical Association Public Health Medicine Committee.
England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said he would still wear a mask “in any situation which is indoors and crowded” or “if someone else is uncomfortable as a point of common courtesy.”
And he hinted at possible tension between scientists and ministers, telling a news conference: “Ministers decide, advisers advise.”
A snap YouGov poll meanwhile has suggested that 71 per cent of Britons believe face masks should continue to be mandatory on public transport.
Opposition politicians warned Mr Johnson was moving too fast.
The leader of the Labour party, Keir Starmer, told journalists that the decision “to throw off all protections at the same time when the infection rate is still going up is reckless”.
London Mayor and Labour politician Sadiq Khan tweeted that “further discussions” were planned with public transport providers over mandatory mask-wearing, arguing this “gives Londoners confidence to travel”.